7 things to consider when using a performance improvement plan (PIP)

Coaching an underperforming employee? Here are 7 things to consider if, when, and how to use a performance improvement plan.

It’s always easier to be a good manager when things are going well. But when an employee is struggling – especially someone who shows a lot of promise – what do you do?

The first step is to figure out if the employee knows they’re underperforming (I discuss this at length here.) Then, it’s time to coach an underperforming employee (hopefully) to success. You need a plan of action.

One way to help an employee improve their performance is through what’s classically known as a performance improvement plan – or PIP, for short. Some companies have a formal PIP process in place, with templates and predefined steps, while other companies and managers forgo having any type of PIP at all.

What works best depends on the employee’s particular situation and the company’s cultural environment. For instance: Has this poor performance been chronic, or something more recent? Does your company generally view process as a means to reduce complexity, or are they process-averse?

To get a better sense of if a formal performance improvement plan would work for you and your team, we asked our 1,000+ managers in our online community, The Watercooler, in Know Your Team about their experiences.

Based on their responses, here’s what you should consider when coaching an underperforming employee and using PIPs:

Is it a lever, or a crutch?

Netflix vocally eschews all performance improvement plans. They’ve observed how other companies use it as a crutch to flag poor performance, rather than as a lever to improve performance. Managers will put an employee on a PIP as “proof” to HR that they tried to help someone. Or in more nefarious situations, a manager will use a PIP to usher someone out of the company. Like any process in an organization, performance plans only work if the intention matches the outcome (whether that outcome is intentional or not.) If the ultimate outcome of PIPs are that they’re a convenient “out” for managers – rather than a genuine path for employees to improve – performance plans will be toxic for your company. Empty relics serve no one.

Never make the PIP a surprise.

Any low performance should have been discussed in a previous one-on-one meeting already. Your direct report should not be caught off guard that you’re suggesting a performance plan to them. In larger companies, this is also something that should have surfaced in feedback to HR (be it ad hoc or via your monthly feedback cycle, depending on what your cadence is.)

Let the employee know a PIP is a possibility.

Folks can turn the ship around, before needing a performance improvement plan. Knowing that a PIP might be on the horizon can be a powerful motivator for some. However, given this, be conscious to not frame the possibility as an ultimatum. Instilling fear is not productive in the long-run. Rather, be transparent as possible about the person’s level of performance is and what the potential next steps might be. For instance, during a one-on-one meeting, you could say, “We need your performance to be at [X tangible level], and I want to work with you to improve. I don’t think we’re at the point where we both need a performance improvement plan in place yet. But, I do want to share that could be a potential next step down the line if we don’t improve, together. Right now, I do want to support you to figure out how to make things better. Would you be open to discussing that?”

Consider having others in addition to the employee present for the conversation.

Watercooler members who are part of larger companies recommended the meeting about the PIP involve the employee, the manager, and HR. This is to make sure all relevant parties are on the same page. If you do choose to involve HR, be wary that some find it distracting (if not a bit ominous) to have HR in the room when the PIP is being discussed. At the same time, others prefer to have HR present from the beginning because it helps establish continuity of information. You’ll want to weigh these trade-offs, for your own team, when evaluating whether or not others should be a part of the PIP conversation.

Have an overall consistent flow for the PIP.

Based on what Watercooler members shared, here’s a general outline for how you could set up a PIP in your company:

  1. Meet with the employee to discuss the performance plan. Make it clear ahead of time that this is the purpose of the meeting, so the employee can plan accordingly in advance, themselves.
  2. Clearly define, together, what “success” tangibly looks like, and when it should be achieved by (typically 4 – 6 weeks out). Discuss why this marker of success is important to the team, and how it helps move the team forward. Get on the same page for how a successful outcome will be measured. Agree on the method of measurement.
  3. Develop a plan during the meeting for how to reach success. What might daily or weekly activities look like? Do either of you have suggestions for what should be done different so success is attainable?
  4. Set up 4 – 6 weekly checkpoints. Talk about what “success” for each weekly checkpoint might look like. What will the measurable output be?
  5. During each weekly checkpoint, discuss the progress made to date, based on the metrics you previously agreed to. What’s been going well and not well? How can either of you do things different to make better progress? How well is the employee tracking toward “success,” as was previously defined?
  6. During the last weekly checkpoint, declare success – or decide it is time to part ways. Obviously, one of these conversations is much harder to have than the other. If the employee has fallen short of meeting the successful outcome, have this discussion as directly and respectfully as possible. Here are some tips on letting someone go with grace and dignity.

Draft the plan always with the employee’s input.

This is paramount. An effective performance improvement plan is “we can improve together” and not just “I’m telling you what to change.” Every step of the way, from having the initial discussion about poor performance to defining the weekly check-points, you should be co-creating the PIP, and working together to figure out how to get to the outcome you both want to achieve.

Understand the cultural implications of a PIP.

For some Watercooler members, PIPs work incredibly well for their team because their team thrives on having clear processes and structures in place. However, another Watercooler shared how, because 80% – 90% of employees who were put on a PIP left the company during the PIP period, it culturally made the PIP “a herald of doom.”

Regardless of whether you decide to move forward with a formal performance improvement plan or something more informal – the important piece is that you’re purely focused on helping your employee improve. That’s your purpose as a manager, after all: To create an environment for your team to do their best work. It doesn’t matter if you call it by a three letter acronym (“PIP”) or not. The outcomes are what matter.

How to become a bad boss: Make the little trade-offs.

Here’s why it’s so easy to become a bad manager, even when you don’t mean to be.

I was running a leadership training a few months ago, when a CEO said this to me: “I think I know why it’s so easy to become a bad manager, even when we don’t mean to be: It’s because of the little trade-offs.”

I nodded and smiled. I knew exactly what he meant by “the little trade-offs.” I’d made so many myself as a leader, across my own career. The little trade-offs are the moments when we succumb to what feels most pressing in front of us, at the expense of what our company needs down the road to be successful. We swap “The Thing That Will Help The Team in the Long-Run” for “The Thing That Needs To Be Done Right Now.”

As a leader, we make a dozen of these little trade-offs every week (if not every day!) We negotiate in our heads: “I need to finish this critical project, so I’ll postpone my one-on-one meeting with this employee. We can talk next quarter.” Or, “I need to be heads down on selling to this new client, so I don’t have time to explain the recent company changes. We can announce them later.”

“Next quarter.” “Later.”

In the moment, the little trade-off seems like the right one make. Executing on “The Thing That Needs To Be Done Right Now” feels like the top priority. It’s what will pay the most dividends. And when it’s such a little trade-off, how much does it really matter?

Well, here’s the rub: Little trade-offs are not so little. You might make just one or two, in the beginning. But when you’re stressed, busy, and operating on tight timelines, the frequency of those little trade-offs inevitably increases. The little trade-offs you make as a leader become big trade-offs over time.

Consider these seemingly “little” trade-offs:

You choose to respond to an investor’s message within 24 hours — but don’t respond to a team members’ email or message for days (or weeks) on end.

You choose to be out on the road marketing the company’s new vision to potential customers — but don’t take the time to communicate the vision to the rest of the company.

You choose to actively ask a client for feedback and how your product can improve — but are always late to deliver an employee surveys or hold one-on-ones to solicit feedback on how the company can improve.

These little trade-offs say: “I value investors over my team. I value my potential customers over my team. I value my current customers over my team.” These are not little trade-offs. They’re big.

Over time, the little trade-offs reveal your true preferences as a leader and the basic underlying assumptions you hold. It becomes clear who and what really has a hold on you, and where your interest lies. For your team, the little trade-offs you make speaks volumes to them, more than any stirring inspirational speech or pay increase you give. It’s the little trade-offs that they’ll most remember.

No wonder it’s so easy to become a bad manager. Our little trade-offs pile up. Rather than being the exception, they become the rule.

How many more little trade-offs are you willing to make?

P.S.: If you did indeed enjoy this piece, please feel free to share + give it ❤️ so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

The leadership tip we overlook: Knock out the small stuff

How the smallest action as a leader can have the biggest impact on employee morale and job satisfaction.

“I had no idea it mattered so much.”

A CEO said this to me about a year ago. I’d run into him at a conference. As we sat down at lunch together, he shared something that had happened to him recently…

A few months prior, he had asked his team a question through Know Your Team (they’re a happy customer!). The question was:

“Would you like a new office chair?”

The CEO initially thought the question was a little silly, to be frank. Did office chairs really matter? He doubted anything meaningful would come of the question, but he decided to ask it anyway.

Turns out, every single person in the office (they’re about a 14-person company) responded with, “Yes, I’d like a new office chair.” Not only that, but many of them wrote lengthy, in-depth responses about how unhappy their chairs were making them — how it hurt their lower backs, how it kept them from concentrating and focusing on their work.

“I was shocked,” the CEO told me. “Something I thought was so small, was actually pretty big.”

So he decided to do something about it. The following day, the CEO asked everyone to pick out their own office chairs via Amazon or another site online. The chairs got shipped to the office the next week. Everyone spent a few hours all together during one afternoon, assembling their new office chair, laughing and joking with one another.

To the CEO’s surprise, it became a bonding event. He described: “That single moment alone — getting people new offices chairs — boosted morale in the company more than anything else I’ve tried. The energy of the office has completely shifted since then.”

He continued: “I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on training programs and all sorts of employee engagement initiatives… and office chairs was the thing that did it?!”

The CEO couldn’t help but laugh. He never expected that acting on something so small would make such a big difference.

But it did. And it makes sense.

Taking action on something small is the single most effective way to increase morale in your company. When you do something that an employee suggests, you’re literally sending the message: “I want things to be as YOU would like them to be.” That’s powerful. Actions truly speak louder than words in this case.

It may sound obvious, but we often forget this as leaders: People share feedback because they want some form of action taken. No one is saying they’d like a new office chair just for the sake of saying it — they’d like the issue addressed somehow. Doing something (even if it is just getting new office chairs) reinforces that you’re listening as a leader, and encourages folks to speak up and be honest with you in the future.

Consider it a “quick win.” No matter how small, it makes a real difference.

Is there something small that was requested by an employee, that you haven’t gotten around to yet? Knock out the quick win.

Is there a decision that you’ve been sitting on, because you didn’t think it was that important? Knock out the quick win.

Employees value responsiveness. They’ll feel encouraged that their words led to action. That momentum will have a positive effect on morale.

Even if it’s office chairs, it’s a quick win. Knock it out.

The 3 employee benefits that have the biggest impact on team morale at work

Part of being a good leader is knowing which employee benefits to offer. According to 1,000 leaders in The Watercooler, these 3 make the biggest difference.

Four in five employees want more company benefits than a pay raise. That’s according to a 2015 survey conduced by Harris Poll.

Woof. It begs the question: Which employee benefits should you offer?

A Glassdoor study conducted in 2016 found that employees’ top-ranked company benefits were health care insurance (e.g., medical, dental), vacation/paid time off (37 percent), performance bonus (35 percent), paid sick days (32 percent), and 401(k) plan, retirement plan and/or pension (31 percent).

Today, however, benefits like health insurance and performance bonuses are seen as “givens” for more and more companies. One executive, who is a member of The Watercooler (our online leadership community), explained that having benefits like health insurance, bonuses and sick leave are more so “morale killers” if they’re not there — but not necessarily “morale boosters.”

So what are the “morale boosters” of employee benefits? Which ones truly help differentiate your company from others?

I recently posed this question to The Watercooler, our online community of almost 1,000 managers and leaders. According to them, here are the top three benefits their employees that make the biggest difference:

#1: Remote work

Remote work was by far the most frequently cited employee benefit that Watercooler members’ teams appreciated. An employee can go pick up her kids and take her to gymnastics, or head to a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the day that’s typically difficult to schedule otherwise. This flexibility matters: Best-selling author Daniel Pink talks at length in his book Drive about the importance of autonomy for people to be happy. Giving folks the flexibility to work in an environment that is best suited to them — to avoid the commute, to work from the quiet of their home at their own standing desk — might just be the reason benefits are viewed more favorably than a pure pay raise.

#2: Support for family members

Many leaders agreed how supporting your team’s family members goes a long way. One leader in The Watercooler, mentioned how his company offers a “Travel Pizza” night that’s been a huge hit with his team. They reach out to the families of employees who are on the road, and deliver pizza for the night while their loved one is away. While a seemingly small gesture, it recognizes an employee’s contributions in a meaningful way. Similarly, another Watercooler member shared how when a long-time employee’s wife slipped a disc in her back and was in a lot of pain. So his company dropped a week’s worth of frozen meals in (homemade!), and the employee only found out about it when he got home in the evening to an ecstatic wife and a warm meal.

#3: Allowances for healthy living

A good number of Watercooler members discussed how benefits that promoted employees’ health and well-being were exceedingly popular (especially when employees can choose what those exact benefits are). One manager in The Watercooler gives their employees $200 per month to spend on anything that you can reasonably argue goes to your health and well-being. One of their employees used it to cover teacher training classes for yoga, another uses it for regular massages, while another uses it for painting classes. At the end of the day, employees who feel their whole life — not just their work life — is being supported by a company is being is less likely to take time off work, and even more willing to invest in helping their team make progress toward its goals. Support their health, and you support an employee’s ability to contribute to the team.

If you’re evaluating your own company’s benefits package, consider including one (or perhaps all!) of these three benefits mentioned here. More than a pay raise, it might make the difference you’re looking for.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

6 tips to be a better manager in the most common situations you’ll face

Whether you’re a new manager or hate delivering negative feedback, I share our most popular tips for the situations that managers most frequently encounter.

“If there’s one thing you should be doing to become a better manager, what is it?” I got asked this question recently.

My answer: It depends on on the situation 🙂

It may seem like a cop out answer, but it’s true. What you should do to be a better manager has everything to do with your personal tendencies and habits, your team’s dynamics, and what’s going on with your team in a given moment. It’s about the particular situation. Broadly recommending that you should “make decisions more quickly” or “focus on engaging your team” is unhelpful unless those recommendations are calibrated to your situation.

So I’ve compiled together below six of the most common situations managers often find themselves in, and our most popular recommendations for each:

If you’re a new manager Slow down. Build trust, first.

When you’re a new manager, it’s tempting to want to prove your worth. You want your team to know they’re in good hands. However, the best way to establish your legitimacy as a new manager is to build trust, first. Don’t dive headfirst into charting a vision or make any sweeping changes you think are needed. One of the best ways to build trust during your first team meeting is to share who you are — but more than just the surface level stuff. Your direct reports want to know: What causes do you believe in? What do you see as your greatest weaknesses? What’s your leadership philosophy? Getting to know the real you, especially during your first meeting as a manager, helps build trust. Here are some other suggestions I have for running your first meeting as a new manager and for building trust.

If you hate delivering negative feedback Say, “I’m giving you this feedback because I want you to succeed.”

You cringe at the thought of having to tell a direct report something they might not want to hear. However, if you focus on why you’re giving the person this feedback — that you care about them, the company, etc — it shows that you’re trying to help, not hurt, them. Here are 19 phrases that can help you share critical feedback even if you have a strong aversion to the process.

If you’re not sure how to recognize employees Share a customer review.

Employee recognition is all the rage these days — but we can often forget how to sincerely give employees that recognition. When delivering praise, it can be tempting to offer a gift card or some other incentive. But there are few things as genuine and gratifying for an employee than sharing a positive customer review. That’s not the only way though: Here are 8 ideas for how you show appreciation toward your team in a meaningful way.

If you notice your team hanging on to your every word Say, “This is not urgent.”

As the boss, your words can be taken seriously — sometimes, too seriously. The best way to mitigate this is to explicitly tell people that your word is not the word of god. One way to do this is to say, “This is not urgent,” so folks don’t prioritize things they shouldn’t. You can learn about why this happens and another phrase to use to diffuse your word as a leader here.

If you tend to get defensive when receiving feedback Assume positive intent.

Your reaction to feedback sets the tone in a team for how receptive you are to feedback. So if you react defensively, you discourage your team from ever bringing up feedback to you again. To ease your own defensive tendencies, take a moment to assume that the other person has positive intentions. They’re not out to get you — they just want something in the company to change. Here are four other ways to not get defensive while receiving feedback as a manager.

If you’re struggling to get honest feedback Ask for advice, instead of feedback.

Asking someone for their guidance shows that you trust their expertise or knowledge. The word “feedback” is loaded with emotional baggage — it’s negative, formal, and forced. So while employees are hesitant to give feedback, who doesn’t love to give advice? Switching out that one word can open up lines of communication you might not have otherwise had.

Any of these situations feel familiar? If so, I hope taking the one small step I recommended puts you in better footing as a manager. Remember, you don’t need to start changing a bunch of things, all at once. Your progress as a manager can begin by making one change specific to your situation.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

How do you measure company culture? You can’t. But you can do this instead.

Culture isn’t meant to be measured. Here’s why, and what you should measure instead.

“How do you measure company culture?”

Someone asked me this recently.

My answer: You can’t. And you don’t want to.

Why? Because culture, technically defined, is the artifacts, espoused values and beliefs, and basic underlying assumptions that people have. And that can’t be measured quantitatively.

Nor is it the point of culture, to begin with.

Culture is an organization’s compass for behavior. It’s what people use to decide what actions are acceptable, and what are not. At one company, it guides people to publicly report a mistake. At another company, it nudges people to brush a similar mistake under the rug.

To say you want to measure culture is like saying you want to measure a compass. You could pick it up and say, “Hmm, let me rate the shininess of this compass, or weigh how heavy it is.” But, really, what you care about is if the compass points you to where you want to go. Measuring the compass itself doesn’t do you much good.

The distinction is important. Because if you don’t see culture as a lever that influences what you’re trying to accomplish as a team, and instead as the thing itself you’re trying to maintain, you lose sight of culture’s power in the first place: Culture helps a group of people get what they want done, done.

As a result, what you can measure are the outputs of culture. The observable behaviors and outcomes you want to see as the consequences of your culture.

Possibly the most important output to gauge is progress. Ask your team, “Do you feel like you’re making meaningful progress every day?” Studies show how progress, more than anything, influences employee motivation.

This means defining what “progress” looks like on a day-to-day basis. Is it the speed by which things are happening? Is it the quality of the work being produced? Is it the number of people you’re helping because your work product exists?

It could also mean asking questions to your company about how helpful their manager is in supporting them to make progress, or how frequently they encounter frustrating obstacles in a given week.

In short: If you want to measure culture, start with clearly defining what the outputs of a successful, healthy culture looks like for you — and get super specific. Then, figure out what questions you can ask employees on a regular basis to gauge for that.

Don’t measure the compass, itself.

P.S.: If you enjoyed this piece, please feel free to share + give it 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

The 3 phrases you’re saying that trigger employee disengagement

Stop saying these words — you’re wearing your employees thin.

You’re doing it again. You don’t mean to, but it’s happening: Your words are damaging your team. Small, off-hand remarks color how an employee thinks you value their work. Comments seemingly innocuous to you are in fact infuriating to your team.

You may have started to notice this. When you praise an employee, your compliment is met with an empty stare. When you announce a decision at a meeting, the reaction is silent agreement… or perhaps, silent fuming.

Your words aren’t helping. They’re hurting.

As demoralizing as it might be to recognize this, there’s an upside. Improving employee engagement can be as straightforward as changing what you’re saying to your team. It doesn’t have to be about investing thousands of dollars in a new employee benefits program, or bringing in an external consultant to write a custom employee engagement survey. To boost your team’s engagement, you can simply stop saying certain phrases.

Here are three phrases I’ve been a perpetrator of saying — and that I’m sure you have too – that can cause an employee to be disengaged:

“Not now”

You say this when a new idea is offered. Not every time, but half of the time. I get it. You can’t implement every idea, and it’s tiring to field new initiatives during a meeting when you’re already short on resources. But consider how dismissive the phrase “not now” can be, when an employee goes on a limb to offer a well thought-out idea. Snuff out a suggestion and you snuff out an employee’s motivation to bring it up the next time around.

While you can’t implement every idea, your knee jerk reaction doesn’t have to be “not now” each time. Instead, say specifically when you’d like to reconsider the idea (e.g., “Can we revisit this next month?). Or say honestly share why you don’t think it’s a good idea, all together (e.g., “Here’s why I don’t we should pursue this…”). Your team will appreciate your candor, instead of feeling strung along that maybe this will happen in the future, maybe it won’t.

In the end, remember that suggestions are a harbinger of employee engagement. Your team cares enough to want to make things better. Greet these suggestions with enthusiasm, curiosity, and a genuine desire to explore them.

“Good job”

An employee completes a project and we instinctively say, “Good job.” Ron Carucci in Harvard Business Review calls this “drive-by praise” We pop our heads into their office and briefly say “thanks,” or send a quick 👍 on Slack. Yes, it’s better than saying nothing, but employees want (and deserve!) more. They want specifics on how they can improve, and feedback on what they did well.

Uttering “good job” doesn’t show that you understand all the work they did, and doesn’t help them do better next time. Don’t wait for performance reviews to give detailed feedback, either. Take a few minutes every week or two to provide feedback and sincere, specific praise for what you think they’re doing well. For example, you could say, “I learned a lot from you by watching how you interacted with that upset client with grace and steadfastness.” Compare those words to merely saying, “Good job with that angry client.” If you’re curious for more ideas for ways to express gratitude in words sincerely, read this.


We lean heavily on these four letters, as managers. Fires are burning everywhere, so saying “ASAP” communicates urgency to our team. But urgency is a spectrum — and ASAP includes no nuance for where on that spectrum something actually is. As a result, “ASAP” creates confusion for our employees: “Is it actually urgent, or somewhat urgent?” When employees feel constrained on time unnecessarily, they’re frazzled — and their work and morale suffer because of it.

Rather than relying on these four letters to communicate urgency, first consider what degree of urgency is this? For example: “This is highly urgent and needs to be turned around in the next 24 hours,” or “This is fairly urgent and should be prioritized over most tasks, but can be finished by the end of the week.” Be conscious that the amount of time you give someone to complete a deliverable affects their level of engagement. Gallup in fact found that “when employees say they often or always have enough time to do all of their work, they are 70% less likely to experience high burnout.”

Saying these phrases on occasion are harmless. It’s the repetition of them over time that inflicts harm. Like a tire driving over a road, the more pressure applied and the more times travelled, the more you wear the ground underneath it.

Better to just stop driving on those roads. Better to just stop saying these phrases.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Stickers vs. Words: 8 ways to give employee recognition sincerely

I’m tired of gimmicky ways to praise your team. Here’s how to commend your team for a job well done, meaningfully.

My third grade teacher Ms. Mullens had a bulletin board of star stickers in her classroom. On the board, she’d place a star sticker next to your name if you’d cleaned out your cubby, tucked in your chair, and turned in your homework on time.

I liked those star stickers. But what I appreciated even more was what Ms. Mullins wrote on my report card: “Claire is a conscientious, caring individual…

I still remember that decades later. Her words mattered, not her stickers.

When it comes to employee recognition, we seem to have forgotten this. These days, we care about the stickers — not the the words.

Rocket ship emojis in the Slack “kudos” channel, employee recognition software with “badges,” and Amazon gift cards awarded at all-hands meetings — this is the new norm for CEOs and managers who thank their employees. Now I love a perfectly-placed, underutilized emoji (and Amazon gift card!) as much as anyone. But some of the most meaningful moments of my career have not been because someone gave me a thumbs-up badge. I’ve felt most valued when I did one small thing that really helped someone I worked with, and that person let me know in a sincere way.

Employee recognition is about saying something, and meaning it. If a heart emoji or a free lunch are the only ways you say “thank you” or “good job” in your company — you’re missing the point. If you want to say something sincerely, say it with words.

We rely on stickers, gadgets and trinkets to express our gratitude because, often times, we don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to say it.

So I asked our leadership community of 1,000+ managers at The Watercooler what advice they had for managers who struggle to give praise in a sincere way. Here’s what they had to say:

#1: Don’t force it.

Praise is useful for encouraging your team — but it should be organic. If you find yourself struggling to come up with praise for an employee, pass on it this time around. Better to not say anything at all than to say something you don’t 100% believe is true.

#2: Share a customer review.

If you find it hard or awkward to let an employee know how they’re doing, try sharing feedback from a happy customer. One Watercooler member admitted: “Frankly, it makes praise easier to give and more genuine when it comes from customers.”

#3: Focus on recognizing individuals, not just teams.

As managers, our default is to “thank the sales team” or “thank the design team.” Yet, if applied too broadly, the benefits of that praise can stagnate. Studies have shown individual-based recognition systems tend to be more effective than team-based recognition systems (particularly in Western countries).

#4: Remove the buzzwords.

“You’re a rock star who’s killing it.” Yuck. Anytime you use a trite phrase, you erode the sincerity within your comment. Don’t depend on hyperbole to communicate your praise. Take a moment to be specific. Say what you mean.

#5: Praise people during one-on-one meetings.

There is nothing more sincere than commending someone face-to-face. They can hear your tone, read your body language, and look you in the eye. In these settings, you can also go into greater of detail why you value their work, and the impact of this person’s contributions to the company.

#6: Don’t be afraid to praise publicly, in front of everyone.

When you’re in a group, you can highlight and publicly praise individuals who have made progress since your last meeting. This helps establish what “good work” looks like to the entire team, and inspires other team members to step up. In fact, studies show that other team members benefit when a top performer is recognized (this is known as “recognition spillover effects.”)

#7: Make sure praise comes from peers , not just managers.

Encourage your team to praise one another. Getting recognition from you as a manager matters, but it’s also helpful to know peers appreciate hard work. One Watercooler member offered an example of a weekly tradition where people take a few minutes out of their day to give praise to their peers. “It’s optional… Not everybody gives and gets thank you’s every week, which keeps it from feeling forced or inauthentic.”

#8: Use your stickers sparingly.

Tangible gifts can backfire. A 2009 global survey conducted by McKinsey observed that non-cash incentives are more effective than cash incentives — including performance-based cash bonuses. And, they can offend some people who find them transactional. In this situation, it’s wise to ask people what they prefer on a individual basis. Also be wary that a “kudos” system in a digital communication channel (e.g. Slack) can come across as disingenuous for some teams. Ask your team if they’d enjoy it, or test it out before committing fully.

Not sure what specific words you should use when giving praise?

If you’re stuck on the words themselves, here are some ideas Watercooler members shared for things to say when you’re not sure how to praise people:

  • I like the way you’ve been showing up lately. I don’t care about the mistakes; you already know what they are. I appreciate how you’ve been taking accountability for them.
  • Thanks for helping me with X. I had no idea how to execute all of it, and I would have been up a creek without you.
  • You taught me something I didn’t know today.”
  • You’re making this job so much easier for me lately.”

There are, of course, more than these ways to deliver recognition for a job well done. The most important piece — no matter how you decide to deliver praise — is not to get lazy. Don’t use stickers. Use your words. And mean ‘em.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

How can you tell if you have a disengaged employee? Ask these 11 questions.

Employee motivation isn’t as mystifying as it should be. Ask these questions to get to the bottom of it.

“What really motivates employees?” A CEO asked me this recently, quite skeptical of the deluge of books and articles on what influences employee engagement and performance.

It’s managers! It’s career opportunities! It’s learning and development! It’s employee recognition! It’s all of the above!

What “the experts” say is dizzying. The truth is simpler.

Research shows that employee motivation boils down to one thing: Progress. A 2010 study published in Harvard Business Review describes how making progress on meaningful work is the number one indicator of employee engagement.

When employees make headway toward a significant goal, overcome obstacles in a reasonable timeframe, and feel supported in their work, their motivation is the strongest. When they feel their wheels are spinning, run into preventable roadblocks, or notice the end-goal is constantly changing, their motivation wanes.

Given this, if there’s only one thing you should be focused on as a manager, it’s progress. You want to be relentless about discerning, “Are employees making progress on meaningful work every day?” With limited time and competing priorities, you don’t have to make employee engagement more complicated than this.

To best distinguish how your employees feel about the progress they’re making, I’ve pulled together 11 questions from the data we’ve collected through Know Your Team over the past four years, specifically designed to tune into an employee’s sense of progress.

You may be wondering, “Why can’t I just ask my team, outright, ‘Do you feel like you’re making meaningful progress on the work you’re doing?’” Absolutely, you can. And you should. But pose that question enough times, over time, and fatigue sets in. You’ll notice your employees starting to answer “Yes” out of knee-jerk reaction, not genuine reflection… or, to just to get you off their backs.

Instead, these questions below will bring into your view invaluable insights that an employee might not always divulge: The root cause of why they feel the project is quicksand, who on their team is the pain-in-the-ass nitpicker causing unnecessary friction, and what you can do about it.

Here are the 11 questions to figure out if employees feel they’re making meaningful progress — and what we’ve found most employees say in response:

#1: Is there anything you worked on recently that you wish you could do over?

Dissatisfaction should always cause your ears to perk up — and this question is particularly effective at unearthing it. You’ll learn if an employee was dissatisfied with the outcome of a project because of team dynamics, or because it was rushed, or because there wasn’t enough direction given. Either way, the answer to this question will point to how you can better support an employee on certain projects. Notably, 67% of employees who we asked this question to throughKnow Your Team  said, “Yes, there’s something I wish I could do over” (877 employees responded across 137 companies).

#2: Is anything holding you back from doing the best work you can do right now?

To uncover what blockers someone is facing, we tend to rely on stock questions like, “What challenges are you facing?” or “Are you struggling with anything right now?” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with those questions, because these questions tend to be overused, you may not always get the honest answers you’re looking for. Rather, asking what is holding them back helps you triangulate more specific challenges an employee faces, while avoiding routine answers. In fact, we found 58% of employees said, “Yes, something is holding me back from doing my best work” (1,027 employees responded across 124 companies) when asked through Know Your Team .

#3: Do you feel like customers directly benefited from the work you did this week?

Progress feels most meaningful when you can see the impact that you’re making. So knowing whether or not an employee feels like customers benefited from their work is a useful proxy for progress. The good news too is that when asked, we’ve found that 90% of employees say, “Yes, I feel like customers directly benefited from the work I did this week” (1,114 employees responded across 134 companies).

#4: Do you wish you could be working on a different project right now?

Affinity toward a project can signal an employee’s sense of progress. Someone may purely be intrinsically disinterested in the subject matter of the project, while others could be sick of tolerating bad blood on a team, or an employee might feel the work you assigned to them is a mismatch of skill. In all situations, there’s more to poke around and learn more — and this question helps lay that bare. Nearly a third of employees we surveyed (29%) said they wish they could be working on a different project right now (1,942 employees responded across 148 companies).

#5: As a company, do you think we’re behind the curve on anything in particular?

For employees to feel they are making progress, they need to feel the company as a whole is making progress. This question reveals that. It’s disheartening as an employee to pour their best work into their team, but feel the company doesn’t prioritize areas that it should be ahead in. Perhaps most fascinating is that the majority of employees say, “Yes” to this question: 65% of employees think their company is behind the curve on something in particular (1,267 employees responded across 190 companies).

#6: Do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now?

“Overworked, scattered, drained” — these are all hints that an employee doesn’t feel she’s making sufficient progress. Not to mention, overworked employees report more health problems, and as a direct consequence are less productive and use more sick days. Yet, it’s rare an employee will come up and tell you outright: “I’m overworked.” However, asking if someone feels “spread too thin” is a much more palatable to answer. It doesn’t have an employee feeling guilty or wondering if their work ethic will be in question. We found that 36% of employees (slightly more than a third!) said they feel spread too thin right now (2,173 people responded across 179 companies).

#7: Do you think we’re doing our best work right now?

Ask this question to get an idea of if your employee thinks the team is holding itself to a high enough standard. If she feels good about the quality of the work, then you can likely deduce she feel good about the progress of work being made. Encouragingly, we found 59% of employees surveyed said, “Yes, I feel the company or team is doing the best work right now” (1,073 employees responded across 160 companies).

#8: Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?

When an employee feels like they could be doing more, it’s probable that she is discontent with the rate of progress that she could be making in her current role. Ask this question to recognize out what other projects, skills, or knowledge domains an employee wants to dive into — or if there’s more growth opportunities you could provide them with in her current role. This will help you figure out how to ensure they’re motivated. Take notice that an overwhelming majority — 76% of employees — surveyed said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role I feel I could be contributing” (814 employees responded across 135 companies).

#9: Are you being forced to do something that you think is a waste of time?

Nothing feels more depleting for someone’s motivation than wasting time. Asking this question will draw your attention to the excess baggage weighing your team down, or pointless bottlenecks holding up your team. We found that 25% employees said, “Yes, they’re being forced to do something that is a waste of time” — which is not insignificant (852 employees responded across 113 companies). Ask this question to accelerate progress for your employees.

#10: Are you working on a project that you feel like has gone on too long?

When a project drags out forever, an employee’s motivation to see it through naturally diminishes. You’ve most-likely felt this way in your own career, feeling dejected or peeved when a project stalls for a reason outside your control. Now as a manager, you’ll want to detect within your own team who is feeling this way. We discovered a surprisingly high number — 37% of employees — feel that they were working on a project that had gone on too long (615 employees responded across 94 companies). Identify which projects those are, so you can help remove barriers to progress.

#11: Is there any red tape you’d like to cut at the company?

Policies that are no longer necessary, procedures that you’ve even forgotten were there in the first place — this all slow down the rate of progress. Fortunately, as a manager, it’s within your scope to trim this fat. Remember how freeing it is for yourself to operate without impractical constraints. And, keep in mind that 24% of employees said “Yes, there is red tape I’d like to cut at the company” — so there is ample opportunity for you to slash the red tape that is preventing your team’s progress (591 employees responded across 105 companies).

Here’s the best part of all of this: 80% of the answers will expose things that you have control over. You have control over what the policies in the company are, what projects are assigned to which employees and when, the goals of a project, the deadlines set, the amount of support that’s being given, and the sense of direction.

And for the things you don’t have control over —a difficult client you can’t fire right away, or an incompetent team executive who doesn’t report to you— knowing the impediments to progress can inform your decisions to a clearer path of progress.

Employee engagement isn’t as mystifying as it should be. Progress is the linchpin. Asking these questions can help you secure it.

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)

Quiz: Do you have these leadership blindspots?

A short 3-question quiz to give your team so you can avoid common leadership mistakes.

Feel that? It’s your faint intuition that, as a leader, you’re not hearing the full truth. No one seems to tell you the complete story when someone decides to leaves. No one breathes a word about any leadership mistakes you might be making. As a leader, you feel you’re constantly the last to know something .

You’re right. You don’t know everything as a leader. Naturally, you have blindspots. And, naturally, it can be daunting to seek these blindspots out. What we don’t know is terrifying.

To uncover these blindspots in the most painless, least-overwhelming way possible, I’m sharing a short 3-question quiz you can ask your team. Because it’s just three questions, it won’t feel like you’re asking them to formally evaluate you. And because of the questions themselves, it’ll help you identify specifically if you have any of the three most common leadership blindspots we’ve found.

Below, I share the questions you should ask to uncover your blindspots, the data behind it, why it matters, and what you can do about the blindspot itself.

Question #1:

Do feel there’s anything holding you from doing your best work right now?”

What most leaders find: 58% of employees say, “Yes, something is holding me back from doing my best work right now” (according to 1,027 employees we surveyed across 144 different companies through Know Your Team).

Why it matters: Stifled employees can mean increased turnover. When employees are stifled and disengaged they are more likely to leave a job for a 20% pay increase.

What you can do about it: Offer meaningful incentives beyond a paycheck, such as professional development opportunities.

Question #2:

“Do you want more feedback about your performance?”

What most leaders find: 81% of employees say, “Yes, I want more feedback about my performance” (according to 1,747 employees we surveyed across 172 different companies through Know Your Team).

Why it matters: Regular, helpful feedback leads to more engaged employees. Studies have shown — leaders who give honest feedback are three times more engaged than those who don’t.

What you can do about it: Offer honest, consistent guidance to employees (and not in the form of performance reviews). Be sure to open yourself up to feedback from your team, as well.

Question #3:

Do you feel the company is behind the curve on anything in particular?”

What most leaders find: 65% of employees say, “Yes, I think we’re behind the curve on something in particular” (according to 1,267 employees we surveyed across 190 companies throughKnow Your Team).

Why it matters: Your team can provide a wealth of ideas. In fact, according to a national 2010 Cornell study, 20% of employees actively withhold an idea or a suggestion about a problem or making improvements.

What you can do about it: Don’t kill ideas too quickly. Encourage employees to write down ideas that challenge the status quo, offer “out-there” ideas yourself, and judiciously and rigorously evaluate them.

Ask these three question to your team, and compare what answers you receive with the percentages I shared from what other leaders have experienced. How do you seem to be fairing? Anything surprise you? And most importantly, what small steps can you take to act on the new information that you now know?

Don’t be afraid to shine a light on these blindspots. As Louis Brandeis was once quoted, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😄 (And you can always say hi at @clairejlew.)